Exchanging differences in education

VISIT: 21 Indonesian educators tour several South Sound schools for cultural development program

May 16, 2011 

OLYMPIA – They snapped photos, and asked questions.

And the school principals from Jakarta, Indonesia, gazed in amazement at some of the sights that seemed unusual to them, such as a student with blue hair, two girls sitting on the floor while working on a classroom project and countless kids wearing jeans with holes in the knees, shorts and T-shirts to school.

“We can’t do that in Indonesia,” said Pesta Maria Sinaga, principal of Jakarta’s Junior High School No. 115, noting that boys and girls at her school wear white uniforms with ties to school every day. “They are so formal.”

Twenty-one Indonesian educators spent most of last week touring South Sound schools and interviewing their American counterparts about managing middle schools. Their visit – which took them to classrooms in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater, as well as The Evergreen State College – was part of an 18-day professional-development and cultural exchange program.

“They have been getting a lot of exposure to the local area,” said Ted Samland of Lacey, who hosted several of the educators at his home through the Friendship Force of Olympia. “They’re going back with some tremendous ideas that they can try to implement.”

The principals were slated to visit schools in Portland this week before wrapping up their trip next week in San Francisco.

Reeves Middle School principal Aaron Davis led a small group of visitors on a tour of his school. They observed a social studies class, the Alki alternative program, a band class and PE. They sampled American school cafeteria cuisine.

And they asked questions about punishments for middle school actions that apparently are universal, such as vandalism and truancy.

Sinaga – who leads the top-performing government-run junior high school in Jakarta – said she was impressed with some of the organizational skills used at Reeves, including planners that students use to track homework assignments and the practice of teachers writing lesson objectives and specific tasks on their whiteboards before each class.

“Everything is so clear already so the students and the teachers know what to do,” Sinaga said.

In Indonesia, public schools are ranked by national test scores, she said. Students attend classes almost year-round; they have a few weeks of vacation in July and December, Sinaga said.

She pointed out the American flags that are displayed in every classroom; in Indonesia, schools put up pictures of the country’s president and vice president.

After lunch, the visitors were surprised to see Davis pick up his own lunch tray and offer to put theirs away, too. They said in their country, principals are treated like senior officers in the military by students and staff members.

Davis explained that he tries to lead by demonstration and service.

“It shows a lot when I pick up a piece of trash,” he said.

Indonesian middle schools are much larger than the ones they toured in America, Sinaga said. The population of Jakarta is about 9.5 million people and there are 288 public high schools. Most junior highs have about 1,000 students, Sinaga said.

But one of the biggest differences in the American and Indonesian school systems is the basic approach to education.

“Here, they know all of the students very well,” she said. “The principals, the teachers and the parents are involved in education and the teachers treat the students individually.”

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